Thursday, January 31, 2008

Deborah Howell And The Role Of Ombudsman

A couple of nights ago I attended a panel discussion with NPR’s new ombudsman Lisa Shepard and the Washington Post’s ombudsman Deborah Howell. The panel was a discussion “what good are ombudsman” but I would ask “what good are ombudsmans at the Post if Deborah Howell’s the best you can find.”

I’m tentatively more optimistic about Lisa Shepard (disclosure, I’ve met her once before, going to her house before for a function). One of the problems with Deborah Howell’s tenure at the Post is that she is so entrenched in typical journalism habits that she’s unable to see when part of the problem is a failure to adapt to changing times. Shepard, however, is going to be a radio ombudsman and has no experience in radio. I actually think that’s a positive. Someone who doesn’t self-reflectively identify with both the reporters and their most common practices, can oftentimes be a better judge of certain situations.

The panel turned into a lot of punching bag questions from DC activists who were upset about various issues of local coverage (why some kids names were misspelled on a photo, why the DC paper isn’t covering this, that, or the other thing, why isn’t *my* protest/candidacy/cause getting any coverage), but I thought the central premise: is what good are an ombudsmans, is a good question to ask. The answer the panel came up with was basically “to be a pressure valve” (or punching bag) so the public thinks someone hears its complaints. But the only real clout they have is the clout of influence. They have no ability to change the practices of the newsroom, let alone long-established columnists, except by convincing editors/reporters/publishers that their analysis of a situation is correct.

As Deborah stated, all she can do is write her column “which they can’t touch.” But they don’t have to listen to it either.

I have heard people in the media express outright distain for their own ombudsman. And if the ombudsman’s opinion isn’t respected within a media outlet, then what good is it?

I’ve never heard a lot of respect for her outside of it. Some of that has to do with the fact that she’s never expressed a solid understanding of the new nature of online news and how might that change the role of a ombudsman at a newspaper as prestigious as the Washington Post. (At the panel she mentions she often deals with issues like someone failing to get their paper on time. It’s not that I doubt she gets those problems but should answering those kind of circulation problems actually be something the ombudsman spends her time on? Quite frankly it’s several levels below her pay grade.)

One remark that just alarmed me was Howell mentioned that someone told her she should have links in her stories and it suddenly opened up her eyes to the fact that her online readers had more information than those that read her column in the print edition. I’m glad she’s adapting but should the Washington Post have hired someone who had to learn such a fact on the job? It’s not like links were invented last year. And we already know that Howell doesn’t seem to grasp the difference between a comment on a message board and an email sent to server (other than both use seem to have an alarming amount of obscenity hurled at her).

But she is so unsavvy about the use of information online that I suspect when she gets a mass of complaints that are driving by Media Matters, or blogs picking up Media Matters alerts, she thinks of them as all part of a dues-paying membership. As if Media Matters is like a union that sends it members out to do the bidding of the leadership instead of a collection of like-minded individuals who are acting in concert out of conviction.

This led me to ask my only question of the panel. Because Lisa Shepard mentioned that she appreciates when people cite numbers to her when they make complaints of frequency, I asked her if, in her new tenure at NPR how she planned on handling complaints from organizations like Accuracy in Media, Media Matters? Because the one thing I think Media Matters is good at is demonstrating evidence of their complaints. You can disagree with their interpretation, but they do usually provide evidence to back up their assertions.

So I was hearted to hear that Shepard said she listens to such groups. “In fact just the other day Media Matters pointed out a mistake that Scott Simon made,” she said.

She said she views them as another set of “eyes and ears” listening to the station and measuring them.

At this point Deborah Howell jumped in, and added “but they are a partisan eyes and ears, and you have to account for that.” By “account” I took to mean discount, based on the way she stressed the word, “partisan.”

There were a few things I learned at the panel. One being that only 40 newspapers have ombudsman and NPR is the only broadcast station with one. (I didn’t realize CBS dropped its Public Eye only recently). NPR is also expanding foreign bureaus, and when was the last time you heard of a media outlet doing that? (Thank you Ray Croc! You might have poisoned us all with your fast food but in exchange we get more NPR. I guess this is one of those “every cloud has a silver lining” kind of things…)

Other bits:

Lisa Shepard has “one and a half” assistants to help her answer mail. So actually they act as a defacto filter in a way. Deborah Howell said she gets between 200-300 emails a day, goes through them all herself, but has an obscenity filter. So I guess if you SHOUT DIRTY WORDS IN ALL CAPS too much, she won’t even know you sent her anything.

Oh yeah, and Deborah Howell only has a year left on her contract. Thank god. Maybe in 2009 when the Post hires a replacement they will look for someone who understands that more people read the paper online than in paper. And why being spammed is not the same thing as getting a bunch of angry emails from people who have read an item from Media Matters.

But likely they won’t. Deborah Howell is 67 years old “I’ve been in the newsroom for 50 years.” (Yes that’s a direct quote). She also said “They like senior people [to be ombudsman] at the Post. I think they like having someone who has been around the block.”

Yeah, been around the block with Guttenberg maybe.

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